CHAPTER IV. [76]
COMB.

Wax is a natural secretion of the bees; it may be called their oil or fat. If they are gorged with honey, or any liquid sweet, and remain quietly clustered together, it is formed in small wax pouches on their abdomen, and comes out in the shape of very delicate scales. Soon after a swarm is hived, the bottom board will be covered with these scales.

"Thus, filtered through yon flutterer's folded mail,
Clings the cooled wax, and hardens to a scale.
Swift, at the well known call, the ready train,
(For not a buz boon Nature breathes in vain,)
Spring to each falling flake, and bear along
Their glossy burdens to the builder throng.
These with sharp sickle or with sharper tooth,
Pare each excrescence, and each angle smooth,
Till now, in finish'd pride, two radiant rows
Of snow white cells one mutual base disclose.
Six shining panels gird each polish'd round,
The door's fine rim, with waxen fillet bound,
While walls so thin, with sister walls combined,
Weak in themselves, a sure dependence find."
Evans.

Huber was the first to demonstrate that wax is a natural secretion of the bee, when fed on honey or any saccharine substance. Most Apiarians before his time, supposed that it was made from pollen or bee-bread, either in a crude or digested state. He confined a new swarm of bees in a hive placed in a dark and cool room, and on examining them, at the end [77] of five days, found several beautiful white combs in their tenement: these were taken from them, and they were again confined and supplied with honey and water, and a second time new combs were constructed. Five times in succession their combs were removed, and were in each instance replaced, the bees being all the time prevented from ranging the fields, to supply themselves with bee-bread. By subsequent experiments he proved that sugar answered the same end with honey.

He then confined a swarm, giving them no honey, but an abundance of fruit and pollen. They subsisted on the fruit, but refused to touch the pollen; and no combs were constructed, nor any wax scales formed in their pouches. These experiments are conclusive; and are interesting, not merely as proving that wax is secreted from honey or saccharine substances, but because they show in what a thorough manner the experiments of Huber were conducted. Confident assertions are easily made, requiring only a little breath or a drop of ink; and the men who deal most in them, have often a profound contempt for observation and experiment. To establish even a simple truth, on the solid foundation of demonstrated facts, often requires the most patient and protracted toil.

A high temperature is necessary for comb-building, in order that the wax may be soft enough to be moulded into shape. The very process of its secretion helps to furnish the amount of heat which is required to work it. This is a very interesting fact which seems never before to have been noticed.

Honey or sugar is found to contain by weight, about eight pounds of oxygen to one of carbon and hydrogen. When changed into wax, the proportions are entirely reversed: the wax contains only one pound of oxygen to more than sixteen [78] pounds of hydrogen and carbon. Now as oxygen is the grand supporter of animal heat, the consumption of so large a quantity of it, aids in producing the extraordinary heat which always accompanies comb-building, and which is necessary to keep the wax in the soft and plastic state requisite to enable the bees to mould it into such exquisitely delicate and beautiful shapes! Who can fail to admire the wisdom of the Creator in this beautiful instance of adaptation?

The most careful experiments have clearly established the fact, that at least twenty pounds of honey are consumed in making a single pound of wax. If any think that this is incredible, let them bear in mind that wax is an animal oil secreted from honey, and let them consider how many pounds of corn or hay they must feed to their stock, in order to have them gain a single pound of fat.

Many Apiarians are entirely ignorant of the great value of empty comb. Suppose the honey to be worth only 15 cts. per lb., and the comb when rendered into wax, to be worth 30 cts. per lb., the bee-master who melts a pound of comb, loses nearly three dollars by the operation, and this, without estimating the time which the bees have consumed in building the comb. Unfortunately, in the ordinary hives, but little use can be made of empty comb, unless it is new, and can be put into the surplus honey-boxes: but by the use of my movable frames, every piece of good worker-comb may be used to the best advantage, as it can be given to the bees, to aid them in their labors.

It has been found very difficult to preserve comb from the bee-moth, when it is taken from the bees. If it contains only a few of the eggs of this destroyer, these, in due time, will produce a progeny sufficient to devour it. The comb, if it is attached to my frames, may be suspended in a box or empty hive, and thoroughly smoked with sulphur; this [79] will kill any worms which it may contain. When the weather is warm enough to hatch the eggs of the moth, this process must be repeated a few times, at intervals of about a week, so as to insure the destruction of the worms as they hatch, for the sulphur does not seem always to destroy the vitality of the eggs. The combs may now be kept in a tight box or hive, with perfect safety.

Combs containing bee-bread, are of great value, and if given to young colonies, which in spring are frequently destitute of this article, they will materially assist them in early breeding.

Honey may be taken from my hives in the frames, and the covers of the cells sliced off with a sharp knife; the honey can then be drained out, and the empty combs returned to be filled again. A strong stock of bees, in the height of the honey harvest, will fill empty combs with wonderful rapidity. I lay it down, as one of my first principles in bee culture, that no good comb should ever be melted; it should all be carefully preserved and given to the bees. If it is new, it may be easily attached to the frames, or the honey-receptacles, by dipping the edge into melted wax, pressing it gently until it stiffens, and then allowing it to cool. If the comb is old, or the pieces large and full of bee-bread, it will be best to dip them into melted rosin, which, besides costing much less than wax, will secure a much firmer adhesion. When comb is put into tumblers or other small vessels, the bees will begin to work upon it the sooner, if it is simply crowded in, so as to be held in place by being supported against the sides. It would seem as though they were disgusted with such unworkmanlike proceedings, and that they cannot rest until they have taken it into hand, and endeavored to "make a job of it." [80]

If the bee-keeper in using his choicest honey will be satisfied to dispense with looks, and will carefully drain it from the beautiful comb, he may use all such comb again to great advantage; not only saving its intrinsic value, but greatly encouraging his bees to occupy and fill all receptacles in which a portion of it is put. Bees seem to fancy a good start in life, about as well as their more intelligent owners. To this use all suitable drone comb should be put, as soon as it is removed from the main hive. (See remarks on Drones.)

Ingenious efforts have been made, of late years, to construct artificial honey combs of porcelain, to be used for feeding bees. No one, to my knowledge, has ever attempted to imitate the delicate mechanism of the bee so closely, as to construct artificial combs for the ordinary uses of the hive; although for a long time I have entertained the idea as very desirable, and yet as barely possible. I am at present engaged in a course of experiments on this subject, the results of which, in due time, I shall communicate to the public.

While writing this treatise, it has occurred to me that bees might be induced to use old wax for the construction of their combs. Very fine parings may be shaved off with glass, and if given to the bees, under favorable circumstances, it seems to me very probable that they would use them, just as they do the scales which are formed in their wax pouches. Let strong colonies be deprived of some of their combs, after the honey harvest is over, and supplied abundantly with these parings of wax. Whether "nature abhors a vacuum," or not, bees certainly do, when it occurs among the combs of their main hive. They will not use the honey stored up for winter use to replace the combs taken from them; they can gather none from the flowers; [81] and I have strong hopes that necessity will with bees as well as men, prove the mother of invention, and lead them to use the wax, as readily as they do the substitutes offered them for pollen. (See Chapter on Pollen.)

If this conjecture should be verified by actual results, it would exert a most powerful influence in the cheap and rapid multiplication of colonies, and would enable the bees to store up most prodigious quantities of honey. A pound of bees wax might then be made to store up twenty pounds of honey, and the gain to the bee keeper would be the difference in price between the pound of wax, and the twenty pounds of honey, which the bees would have consumed in making the same amount of comb. Strong stocks might thus during the dull season, when no honey can be procured, be most profitably employed in building spare comb, to be used in strengthening feeble stocks, and for a great variety of purposes. Give me the means of cheaply obtaining large amounts of comb, and I have almost found the philosopher's stone in bee keeping.

The building of comb is carried on with the greatest activity in the night, while the honey is gathered by day. Thus no time is lost. If the weather is too forbidding to allow the bees to go abroad, the combs are very rapidly constructed, as the labor is carried on both by day and by night. On the return of a fair day, the bees gather unusual quantities of honey, as they have plenty of room for its storage. Thus it often happens, that by their wise economy of time, they actually lose nothing, even if confined, for several days, to their hive.

"How doth the little busy bee, improve each shining hour!"

The poet might with equal truth have described her, as improving the gloomy days, and the dark nights, in her useful labors. [82]

It is an interesting fact, which I do not remember ever to have seen particularly noticed by any writer, that honey gathering, and comb building, go on simultaneously; so that when one stops, the other ceases also. I have repeatedly observed, that as soon as the honey harvest fails, the bees intermit their labors in building new comb, even when large portions of their hive are unfilled. They might enlarge their combs by using some of their stores; but then they would incur the risk of perishing in the winter, by starvation. When honey no longer abounds in the fields, it is wisely ordered, that they should not consume their hoarded treasures, in expectation of further supplies, which may never come. I do not believe, that any other safe rule could have been given them; and if honey gathering was our business, with all our boasted reason, we should be obliged to adopt the very same course.

Wax is one of the best non-conductors of heat, so that when it is warmed by the animal heat of the bees, it can more easily be worked, than if it parted with its heat too readily. By this property, the combs serve also to keep the bees warm, and there is not so much risk of the honey candying in the cells, or the combs cracking with frost. If wax was a good conductor of heat, the combs would often be icy cold, moisture would condense and freeze upon them, and they would fail to answer the ends for which they are intended.

The size of the cells, in which workers are reared, never varies: the same may substantially be said of the drone cells which are very considerably larger; the cells in which honey is stored, often vary exceedingly in depth, while in diameter, they are of all sizes from that of the worker cells to that of the drones.

The cells of the bees are found perfectly to answer all the most refined conditions of a very intricate mathematical [83] problem! Let it be required to find what shape a given quantity of matter must take, in order to have the greatest capacity, and the greatest strength, requiring at the same time, the least space, and the least labor in its construction. This problem has been solved by the most refined processes of the higher mathematics, and the result is the hexagonal or six-sided cell of the honey bee, with its three four-sided figures at the base!

The shape of these figures cannot be altered, ever so little, except for the worse. Besides possessing the desirable qualities already described, they answer as nurseries for the rearing of the young, and as small air-tight vessels in which the honey is preserved from souring or candying. Every prudent housewife who puts up her preserves in tumblers, or small glass jars, and carefully pastes them over, to keep out the air, will understand the value of such an arrangement.

"There are only three possible figures of the cells," says Dr. Reid, "which can make them all equal and similar, without any useless spaces between them. These are the equilateral triangle, the square and the regular hexagon. It is well known to mathematicians that there is not a fourth way possible, in which a plane may be cut into little spaces that shall be equal, similar and regular, without leaving any interstices."

An equilateral triangle would have made an uncomfortable tenement for an insect with a round body; and a square would not have been much better. At first sight a circle would seem to be the best shape for the development of the larvæ: but such a figure would have caused a needless sacrifice of space, materials and strength; while the honey which now adheres so admirably to the many angles or corners of the six-sided cell, would have been much more [84] liable to run out! I will venture to assign a new reason for the hexagonal form. The body of the immature insect as it undergoes its changes, is charged with a super-abundance of moisture which passes off through the reticulated cover which the bees build over its cell: a hexagon while it approaches so nearly the shape of a circle as not to incommode the young bee, furnishes in its six corners the necessary vacancies for its more thorough ventilation!

So invariably uniform in size, as well as perfect in other respects, are the cells in which the workers are bred, that some mathematicians have proposed their adoption, as the best unit for measures of capacity to serve for universal use.

Can we believe that these little insects unite so many requisites in the construction of their cells, either by chance, or because they are profoundly versed in the most intricate mathematics? Are we not compelled to acknowledge that the mathematics must be referred to the Creator, and not to His puny creature? To an intelligent, candid mind, a piece of honey comb is a complete demonstration that there is a "GREAT FIRST CAUSE:" for on no other supposition can we account for so complicated a shape, and yet the only one which can possibly unite so many desirable requisites.

"On books deep poring, ye pale sons of toil,
Who waste in studious trance the midnight oil,
Say, can ye emulate with all your rules,
Drawn or from Grecian or from Gothic schools,
This artless frame? Instinct her simple guide,
A heaven-taught Insect baffles all your pride.
Not all yon marshall'd orbs, that ride so high,
Proclaim more loud a present Deity,
Than the nice symmetry of these small cells,
Where on each angle genuine science dwells."
Evans.

Hobby
Bee Culture: Comb
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